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Signing OFF on Human Rights (Standpoint, June 2010)

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Oslo Dispatch

There are not many occasions in life when you feel honoured to be in the same room as someone. However, it happened to me several times during the three days of the Oslo Freedom Forum (OFF). The first was when Mukhtar Mai arrived. She is the Pakistani woman whose gang rape was ordered by a local council in the Punjab after her brother allegedly dishonoured a neighbouring tribe. Rather than committing suicide afterwards as is customary, she defied threats and won in court. With her compensation she launched a women’s welfare organisation. 

Women of valour: Mukhtar Mai and Kasha Jacqueline 

Then there was Lubna al-Hussein. She is the Sudanese woman who was arrested and sentenced to 40 lashes for wearing trousers. As she told the forum, about 43,000 women were arrested in 2008 in Khartoum alone for such crimes. Unlike most of them, she had the money and influence to free herself. She chose instead to remain in prison and demand a full trial, knowing that because she was a UN employee, the case would get international attention. She said that what prompted her to choose that path — which has forced her into exile — was the sight of two teenage girls arrested with her. Both were Christians from the south with no family to call for help. “One of them was so frightened when they said she would get lashes that she wet herself.” The case was hugely embarrassing to Sudan’s Islamist government, which eventually freed her. 

Less well-known but just as inspiring were two other speakers. A Ugandan activist, Kasha Jacqueline, has been threatened with murder because she is battling a proposed law that would inflict the death penalty on homosexuals and imprisonment on those who fail to report homosexuals to the authorities. “I’m so glad I’m here,” she told me with a smile as we looked around the opening reception in Oslo’s town hall. “I just hope they don’t kill me when I go home.”

That sentiment was echoed by a short but redoubtable woman called Guadalupe Llori. She feared returning to Ecuador even though she is the elected governor of a large province and was a member of the same left-wing alliance as the country’s President, Rafael Correa, a staunch ally of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez. Llori had made the mistake of supporting striking oil workers in her province who were protesting against the government’s failure to build promised roads. Correa responded by accusing her of terrorism, sabotage and corruption and sent commandos backed by tanks and helicopters to arrest her. Llori then spent nine months in prison where she was subjected to forced labour and beatings. The country’s human rights sector, much of which has long links to Correa and his party, did nothing to help her. Because Correa is seen as a progressive hero by the Western Left, international organisations largely ignored her. 

It is that kind of failure by the older, larger human rights establishment that led to the founding of the OFF two years ago. Essentially, it is an alternative human rights conference, in that it genuinely embodies what such organisations used to be about: it celebrates the fight for freedom of speech, belief and association and unlike some of the more politicised human rights groups, it highlights persecution regardless of the identity or ideology of the perpetrator. 

None of this may sound particularly “alternative”. But in recent years some in the “human rights community” have become so exercised about alleged or genuine victims of America, Britain and their allies in the “War on Terror” that they find it hard to become equally excited about Vietnamese Buddhist monks, North Korean concentration camps or Mauritanian slaves. Others have become less focused on supporting dissidents in distant dungeons, and more interested in wider “progressive” issues such as globalisation, economic inequality and environmental degradation.

When Irene Khan, the former secretary-general of Amnesty International, said in 2005 that Guantánamo Bay was “the gulag of our time”, it revealed a sad ignorance of the vast degradation machine that killed many millions of people. It also sent a signal to those in the real gulags of our time — the Laogai system in China and its equivalent in North Korea — that their plight might not be a priority for Amnesty. 

OFF aims to restore the balance and highlight causes that are too often ignored or forgotten. And unlike events such as the UN’s notorious “Durban II” conference at which Iran’s President Mahmoud 
Ahmadinejad railed against the US and Zionism, it provides an intimate space for dissidents and human rights defenders from around the world to meet each other, to talk to internet entrepreneurs, academics, politicians, journalists and to draw inspiration and encouragement. 

OFF is the brainchild of Thor Halvorssen, a 34-year-old Venezuelan-Norwegian filmmaker and head of the New York-based Human Rights Foundation (HRF). Halvorssen has been involved in free-speech causes since his days at the University of Pennsylvania, but founded HRF after his mother was shot and wounded by government agents at a peaceful demonstration in Caracas. He hopes that the OFF will become the “Davos of Human Rights”.

Among the two score speakers this year were Garry Kasparov, Rebiya Kadeer, the leader in exile of China’s Uighurs, Mart Laar, who led Estonia’s “Singing Revolution”, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, North Korean defector Kang Chol-hwan, anti-slavery campaigner Benjamin Skinner, Yemeni  journalist and political prisoner Abdulkarim al-Khaiwani and the former Malaysian cabinet minister and now opposition figure Anwar Ibrahim, who was jailed on false charges of corruption and sodomy. 

Ibrahim was responsible for some of the event’s better moments of black humour, joking that Malaysia had “freedom of speech but not freedom afterspeech”. He also recalled being beaten by the country’s inspector general of police and admonished the audience: “If you’re going to take power, make sure that your inspector general is not too strong. That way if one day he beats you up it won’t be fatal.”

I had wondered if the event could possibly be as powerful as the first forum last year, when I had witnessed Tibetan monk Palden Gyatso take out his dentures and explain with a gummy smile that during his 30 years of imprisonment by Chinese occupation forces his torturers jammed an electric cattle prod into his mouth again and again until he lost all his teeth.

Lubna al-Hussein and Lubna al-Hussein

As it turned out it was almost too overwhelming. There may be a limit to how much suffering — and how much courage — you can hear about first-hand in a short space of time, even when delivered with remarkable calmness and modesty as was mostly the case. Indeed, one of the strange things about a gathering like this is how little anger and how much forgiveness you encounter. That said, there was outrage, especially in the presentation by Sophal Ear, a survivor of the Khmer Rouge killing fields, now a political scientist in California. His quiet fury was directed not so much at the regime that murdered his family and so many of his fellow countrymen but at those including Noam Chomsky who have defended the record of “Democratic Kampuchea” long after the truth was out. 

There is also surprising lightness and optimism to be found among these people whose lives — sometimes by choice — are so difficult or perilous. The Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez is essentially confined to her house, has been beaten up in the street and has to upload her postings by texting them to supporters who can get internet access. Yet her videoed message from Havana could hardly have been more cheerful.

Norway has long been friendly to Cuba, and for some Norwegians, watching her and then listening to longtime political prisoner Armando Valladares was not a comfortable experience. Even the representative of Amnesty Norway looked twitchy when Valladares reminded listeners that all dictatorships are bad, whether in Chile or Cuba, and noted that he had been in prison for 18 years before Amnesty even recognised that there were political prisoners in Cuba and adopted his case.

At the first forum last year, a Norwegian author shocked me by asking if it was true that the forum was organised by “American Jews”. The agenda in front of us included speeches by a Turkish Kurd, a dissident from Uzbekistan and Greg Mortenson, the author of Three Cups of Tea. Then I realised that what made her sources suspicious of OFF was that it was not devoted to the usual suspects. As a local journalist explained to me, in Norway talk of human rights violations begins and ends with Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib. 

There is also the fact that Norway tends to be nervous and politically correct when it comes even to mentioning human rights violations in the Muslim world or in Islamic communities at home. OFF has no such bashfulness. As the North African human rights activist Nasser Weddady told me: “They are a new scene. They are very young and yet they have a real understanding of the challenges of human rights in the Muslim world. They’re not implicitly saying that Muslims are barbaric and backward and not be held to equal standards. They actually care about these nascent civil societies in places like Yemen, Sudan and Mauritania that no one pays much attention to. And that’s inspiring for people like me.”

Nevertheless, OFF seems to be overcoming the initial suspicion of Norway’s left-oriented government and human rights establishment. This year there were fewer newspaper articles wondering if the presence of Venezuelan opposition figures was proof of CIA sponsorship of the forum. Moreover, the country’s best-known author, Asne Seierstad, introduced some of the speakers, and the City of Oslo, the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, Amnesty International Norway and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs all lent support to this year’s event. 

Between sessions, the speakers and the audience had coffee on the terrace of the Grand Hotel, which Ibsen was said to visit twice a day. It overlooks the Norwegian parliament building and the square in front of it, which on most days hosts a small demonstration. Compared to London’s Parliament Square, there is little traffic and no visible security. The absence of walls, armed police and X-ray machines is startling, as powerful a reminder of how much life has changed in the UK as the sight of the gleaming royal yacht in Oslo’s harbour. 

Last year in front of the Parliament there were supporters of the Tamil Tigers, waving banners and shouting. This year, there were Iranian communists, though they were outnumbered by noisy gaggles of Norwegian students in bright red overalls taking part in “Russ“, the country’s traditional two-week celebration of high-school graduation. But all the activity in the square came to a halt when Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev arrived at the Grand Hotel in a flurry of sirens, police motorcycles and black limousines for a meeting with the Norwegian government.

The presence of Medvedev’s security men during the Forum cannot have been pleasant for participants such as Kasparov, Vladimir Bukovsky and the Chechen lawyer Lidia Yusupova. One Russian critic at the conference felt sure that his room had been broken into and searched while Medvedev’s FSB were in town. 

I wondered if coming to a conference like this may have made Yusupova — whose former colleague Natalya Estemirova was assassinated last year — and others less vulnerable at home. However, on the second morning of the event Diego Arria, the courtly former Venezuelan ambassador to the UN and key witness in the trial of Slobodan Milosevic, discovered that Chávez had sent police to seize his farm. 

The grim past and uncertain future of so many of the delegates gave the final event of the conference all the more meaning. It was a speech by Lech Walesa. With characteristic simplicity and good cheer he assured his audience that the impossible really can be achieved, even by an ordinary electrician from Gdansk. As he spoke, I looked at Lubna Hussein, Yusupova and the others and they seemed to be growing in their seats.